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Letters of Recommendation

Advice to Students Seeking References or Recommendations

Both our MA and PhD programs require three letters of recommendation. In addition to your personal statement (statement of purpose) and your writing sample, your letter of recommendations are a very important part of your application. The graduate studies committee reads all letters carefully.

But asking for recommendation letters can seem like a daunting task. As Emily Elia writes, "Asking for a letter can feel awkward, but remember that everyone has been there!" Here is some advice as you begin the application process.

When should you ask for letters?

You should ask your potential letter writers as soon as you have decided to apply to graduate school. Even if you don't have a finalized list of the programs to which you will apply, you should still ask potential writers as soon as possible.

It is always best to set up an appointment to meet your potential letter writer in person. However, if you can't, a polite and informative email will suffice.

Who should you ask for letters?

You should ask recommendation writers who know you well; who have earned the degree that you are seeking; and with whom you've taken upper-division courses (preferably more than one).

We generally discourage asking family members, family friends, or employers outside the field of history. An exception to the latter would be a supervisor in a public history or museum position or one in academic publishing or related fields.

What should you provide your letter writers?

When you reach out to your potential letter writers, you should already have drafts your application materials on hand. Essential documents include:

  1. The list of schools to which you are applying, including due dates and how to submit electronically.
  2. A draft of your personal statement/statement of purpose.
  3. Your curriculum vitae (CV) or resume.
  4. The best written work in the course you took with the professor.

Some letter writers may ask for a copy of your transcript or the specific writing sample you are using in your application. They are asking for these materials so they can write a strong letter for you, so make sure to respond to their requests in a timely fashion.

What do I do if my letter writers have not submitted and the December 1 deadline is coming up?

It is always okay to write a polite email reminder, reattaching your application materials and restating the directions on how and where to upload the letter a week or so before the final deadline. Remember to check our online application platform to confirm the letter is still pending before doing this. Finally, our program does process applications with letters submitted after the December 1 deadline, so better late than never!

Additional Resources:

Anthony Grafton, "Letters of Recommendation: Some Songs of Experience," AHA Perspectives, October 2007:

"One point needs special emphasis. Those who ask for letters of recommendation, as well as those who provide them, should think carefully about what they are doing. It's always most effective to ask the scholars and teachers who know you best—rather than those who may seem more famous—to write on your behalf. It's always important to make this request well in advance of deadlines, and, if you are on the same continent as the letter-writer, to provide clear addresses (or, even better, stamped and addressed envelopes). As your career develops, moreover, you should continue to ask yourself if your referees are the ones who serve you best. If you never contact someone except to ask for a recommendation, you should think again. Someone who plays no active role in your intellectual life is not the logical person to assess your accomplishments and convey to others what you do particularly well. It is always the responsibility of the one asking for recommendations to provide up-to-date curricula vitae, copies of recent work, and other information that can enable a letter-writer to refresh his or her work."

Robert Darnton, "Letters of Recommendation: Problems and Practices" Ibid.:

"Recommendations for graduate students demand special care. They should include specific references to scholarly work and enough description of the candidate's personal qualities to make him or her stand out as an individual. Owing to the general inflation, an informal code has evolved. Phrases such as ‘diligent’ or ‘hard-working’ tend to mean ‘mediocre’ or ‘pedestrian.’ You should be careful in using them, and you can reinforce the credibility of your remarks by comparing the candidate to others or indicating his or her relative ability: ‘among the best students I have taught’ or ‘one of the top three students I have encountered during the last decade.’ Many universities keep placement folders for their graduate students. In that case, you may prefer to write one, all-purpose letter and to add specific letters as occasions arise. Of course, job recommendations should include an assessment of the candidate's scholarship. On the whole, it is better to be relatively brief. The recipients of the letter will have received examples of the work and will be able to make their own judgments. But it is important to indicate the originality and importance of the scholarship by putting it in the context of other work."

Paula Findlen, "Letters of Recommendation: The Art and the Science" Ibid.

"Writing a letter of recommendation is an art form. A good letter should be detailed enough to indicate your specific knowledge and assessment of this person's work. It should also reflect your knowledge of the field in general, helping readers (who often are not specialists) to understand how this definitive archival exploration of subject X or Y fits into both classic perspectives and current trends in the area of historical inquiry. What is this historian trying to accomplish? How is he or she doing it? What are the prospective outcomes of this work? If they aren't yet done with the dissertation, how much is written, and realistically when can the rest be completed?

Having begun with research, I will remind readers that even research universities hire the most promising teachers. If this person has worked with you as a teaching assistant or you have collaborated closely on other teaching projects, I want your impressions of their teaching abilities and interactions with undergraduates. Have they taught broadly and at different levels? Can they think beyond their research and transform it into an exciting set of special topics to complement broader surveys?

Finally, I want your impression of the kind of colleague this person will make. You know the applicant far better than I do. Without being inappropriately personal, I would like to hear your thoughts about what they can offer my department or residential fellowship program."

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